This article was taken from newsweek.com
At 15, Lawrence King was small—5 feet 1 inch—but very hard to miss. In January, he started
to show up for class at Oxnard, Calif.'s E. O. Green Junior High School decked out in
women's accessories. On some days, he would slick up his curly hair in a Prince-like
bouffant. Sometimes he'd paint his fingernails hot pink and dab glitter or white
foundation on his cheeks. "He wore makeup better than I did," says Marissa Moreno, 13, one
of his classmates. He bought a pair of stilettos at Target, and he couldn't have been
prouder if he had on a varsity football jersey. He thought nothing of chasing the boys
around the school in them, teetering as he ran.
But on the morning of Feb. 12, Larry left his glitter and his heels at home. He came to
school dressed like any other boy: tennis shoes, baggy pants, a loose sweater over a
collared shirt. He seemed unhappy about something. He hadn't slept much the night before,
and he told one school employee that he threw up his breakfast that morning, which he
sometimes did because he obsessed over his weight. But this was different. One student
noticed that as Larry walked across the quad, he kept looking back nervously over his
shoulder before he slipped into his first-period English class. The teacher, Dawn Boldrin,
told the students to collect their belongings, and then marched them to a nearby computer
lab, so they could type out their papers on World War II. Larry found a seat in the middle
of the room. Behind him, Brandon McInerney pulled up a chair.
Brandon, 14, wasn't working on his paper, because he told Mrs. Boldrin he'd finished it.
Instead, he opened a history book and started to read. Or at least he pretended to. "He
kept looking over at Larry," says a student who was in the class that morning. "He'd look
at the book and look at Larry, and look at the book and look at Larry." At 8:30 a.m., a
half hour into class, Brandon quietly stood up. Then, without anyone's noticing, he
removed a handgun that he had somehow sneaked to school, aimed it at Larry's head, and
fired a single shot. Boldrin, who was across the room looking at another student's work,
spun around. "Brandon, what the hell are you doing!" she screamed. Brandon fired at Larry
a second time, tossed the gun on the ground and calmly walked through the classroom door.
Police arrested him within seven minutes, a few blocks from school. Larry was rushed to
the hospital, where he died two days later of brain injuries.
The Larry King shooting became the most prominent gay-bias crime since the murder of
Matthew Shepard 10 years ago. But despite all the attention and outrage, the reason Larry
died isn't as clear-cut as many people think. California's Supreme Court has just
legalized gay marriage. There are gay characters on popular TV shows such as "Gossip Girl"
and "Ugly Betty," and no one seems to notice. Kids like Larry are so comfortable with the
concept of being openly gay that they are coming out younger and younger. One study found
that the average age when kids self-identify as gay has tumbled to 13.4; their parents
usually find out a year later.
What you might call "the shrinking closet" is arguably a major factor in Larry's death.
Even as homosexuality has become more accepted, the prospect of being openly gay in middle
school raises a troubling set of issues. Kids may want to express who they are, but they
are playing grown-up without fully knowing what that means. At the same time, teachers and
parents are often uncomfortable dealing with sexual issues in children so young. Schools
are caught in between. How do you protect legitimate, personal expression while preventing
inappropriate, sometimes harmful, behavior? Larry King was, admittedly, a problematical
test case: he was a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a
weapon—it was often his first line of defense. But his story sheds light on the difficulty
of defining the limits of tolerance. As E. O. Green found, finding that balance presents
an enormous challenge.
Larry's life was hard from the beginning. His biological mother was a drug user; his
father wasn't in the picture. When Greg and Dawn King took him in at age 2, the family was
told he wasn't being fed regularly. Early on, a speech impediment made Larry difficult to
understand, and he repeated first grade because he had trouble reading. He was a gentle
child who loved nature and crocheting, but he also acted out from an early age. "We
couldn't take him to the grocery store without him shoplifting," Greg says. "We couldn't
get him to clean up his room. We sent him upstairs—he'd get a screwdriver and poke holes
in the walls." He was prescribed ADHD medication, and Greg says Larry was diagnosed with
reactive attachment disorder, a rare condition in which children never fully bond with
their caregivers or parents.
Kids started whispering about Larry when he was in third grade at Hathaway Elementary
School. "In a school of 700 students, you'd know Larry," says Sarah Ranjbar, one of
Larry's principals. "He was slightly effeminate but very sure of his personality."
Finally, his best friend, Averi Laskey, pulled him aside one day at the end of class. "I
said, 'Larry, are you gay?' He said, 'Yeah, why?' " He was 10. Averi remembers telling
Larry she didn't care either way, but Larry started telling other students, and they did.
They called him slurs and avoided him at recess. One Halloween, someone threw a smoke bomb
into his house, almost killing the family's Jack Russell terrier. In the sixth grade, a
girl started a "Burn Book"—an allusion to a book in the movie "Mean Girls," where bullies
scribble nasty rumors about the people they hate—about Larry. The Larry book talked about
how he was gay and falsely asserted that he dressed in Goth and drag. And it ended with a
threat: "I hate Larry King. I wish he was dead," according to one parent's memory of the
book. "The principal called my wife on the phone and she was crying," Greg says. "She
found the book, and said we needed to do something to help protect Larry." His parents
transferred him to another elementary school, hoping he could get a fresh start before he
started junior high.
E. O. Green is a white slab of concrete in a neighborhood of pink and yellow homes. In the
afternoons, SUVs roll down the street like gumballs, the sound of hip-hop music thumping.
Once the students leave the campus, two blue gates seal it shut, and teachers are told not
to return to school after dark, because of gang violence. Outside, there's a worn blue
sign that greets visitors: this was a California distinguished school in 1994. The school
is under a different administration now.
E. O. Green was a comfortable place for Larry when he arrived as a seventh grader. He hung
out with a group of girls who, unlike in elementary school, didn't judge him. But that
didn't mean he was entirely accepted. In gym class, some of his friends say that the boys
would shove him around in the locker room. After he started dressing up, he was ridiculed
even more. He lost a high heel once and the boys tossed it around at lunch like a
football. "Random people would come up to him and start laughing," Moreno says. "I thought
that was very rude." One day, in science class, he was singing "Somewhere Over the
Rainbow" to himself. Kids nearby taunted him for being gay. "He said to me, 'It's OK',"
says Vanessa Castillo, a classmate. " 'One day, they'll regret it. One day, I'll be
Larry's home life wasn't getting any better. At 12, he was put on probation for
vandalizing a tractor with a razor blade, and he entered a counseling program, according
to his father. One therapist said Larry might be autistic. At 14, Larry told Greg he
thought he was bisexual. "It wouldn't matter either way to me," Greg says. "I thought
maybe some of the problems would go away if we supported him." But the therapist told Greg
he thought that Larry was just trying to get attention and might not understand what it
meant to be gay. Larry began telling his teachers that his father was hitting him. Greg
says he never harmed Larry; still, the authorities removed Larry from his home in November
2007. He moved to Casa Pacifica, a group home and treatment center in Camarillo, five
miles away from Oxnard.
Larry seemed to like Casa Pacifica—"peaceful home" in Spanish. The 23-acre facility—more
like a giant campground, with wooden cottages, a basketball court and a swimming pool—has
45 beds for crisis kids who need temporary shelter. Every day a driver would take Larry to
school, and some weeks he went to nearby Ventura, where he attended gay youth-group
meetings. "I heard this was the happiest time of his life," says Vicki Murphy, the
center's director of operations. For Christmas, the home gave Larry a $75 gift card for
Target. He spent it on a pair of brown stiletto shoes.
In January, after a few months at Casa Pacifica, Larry decided to dress like a girl. He
went to school accessorized to the max, and his already colorful personality got louder.
He accused a girl to her face of having breast implants. Another girl told him she didn't
like his shoes. "I don't like your necklace," Larry snapped back. Larry called his mom
from Casa Pacifica to tell her that he wanted to get a sex-change operation. And he told a
teacher that he wanted to be called Leticia, since no one at school knew he was half
African-American. The teacher said firmly, "Larry, I'm not calling you Leticia." He
dropped the idea without an argument.
The staff at E. O. Green was clearly struggling with the Larry situation—how to balance
his right to self-expression while preventing it from disrupting others. Legally, they
couldn't stop him from wearing girls' clothes, according to the California Attorney
General's Office, because of a state hate-crime law that prevents gender discrimination.
Larry, being Larry, pushed his rights as far as he could. During lunch, he'd sidle up to
the popular boys' table and say in a high-pitched voice, "Mind if I sit here?" In the
locker room, where he was often ridiculed, he got even by telling the boys, "You look
hot," while they were changing, according to the mother of a student.
Larry was eventually moved out of the P.E. class, though the school didn't seem to know
the extent to which he was clashing with other boys. One teacher describes the gym
transfer as more of a "preventative measure," since Larry complained that one student
wouldn't stop looking at him. In other classes, teachers were baffled that Larry was
allowed to draw so much attention to himself. "All the teachers were complaining, because
it was disruptive," says one of them. "Dress code is a huge issue at our school. We fight
[over] it every day." Some teachers thought Larry was clearly in violation of the code,
which prevents students from wearing articles of clothing considered distracting. When
Larry wore lipstick and eyeliner to school for the first time, a teacher told him to wash
it off, and he did. But the next day, he was back wearing even more. Larry told the
teacher he could wear makeup if he wanted to. He said that Ms. Epstein told him that was
Joy Epstein was one of the school's three assistant principals, and as Larry became less
inhibited, Epstein became more a source of some teachers' confusion and anger. Epstein, a
calm, brown-haired woman with bifocals, was openly gay to her colleagues, and although she
was generally not out to her students, she kept a picture of her partner on her desk that
some students saw. While her job was to oversee the seventh graders, she formed a special
bond with Larry, who was in the eighth grade. He dropped by her office regularly, either
for counseling or just to talk—she won't say exactly. "There was no reason why I
specifically started working with Larry," Epstein says. "He came to me." Some teachers
believe that she was encouraging Larry's flamboyance, to help further an "agenda," as some
put it. One teacher complains that by being openly gay and discussing her girlfriend
(presumably, no one would have complained if she had talked about a husband), Epstein
brought the subject of sex into school. Epstein won't elaborate on what exactly she said
to Larry because she expects to be called to testify at Brandon's trial, but it's certain
to become one of the key issues. William Quest, Brandon's public defender, hasn't
disclosed his defense strategy, but he has accused the school of failing to intercede as
the tension rose between Larry and Brandon. Quest calls Epstein "a lesbian vice principal
with a political agenda." Larry's father also blames Epstein. He's hired an attorney and
says he is seriously contemplating a wrongful-death lawsuit. "She started to confuse her
role as a junior-high principal," Greg King says. "I think that she was asserting her
beliefs for gay rights." In a tragedy such as this, the natural impulse is to try to
understand why it happened and to look for someone to blame. Epstein won't discuss the
case in detail and, until she testifies in court, it's impossible to know what role—if
any—she played in the events leading to Larry's death.
Whatever Epstein said to Larry, it's clear that his coming out proved to be a fraught
process, as it can often be. For tweens, talking about being gay isn't really about sex.
They may be aware of their own sexual attraction by the time they're 10, according to
Caitlin Ryan, a researcher at San Francisco State University, but those feelings are too
vague and unfamiliar to be their primary motivation. (In fact, Larry told a teacher that
he'd never kissed anyone, male or female.) These kids are actually concerned with
exploring their identity. "When you're a baby, you cry when you're hungry because you
don't know the word for it," says Allan Acevedo, 19, of San Diego, who came out when he
was in eighth grade. "Part of the reason why people are coming out earlier is they have
the word 'gay,' and they know it explains the feeling." Like older teenagers, tweens tend
to tell their friends first, because they think they'll be more accepting. But kids that
age often aren't equipped to deal with highly personal information, and middle-school
staffs are almost never trained in handling kids who question their sexuality. More than
3,600 high schools sponsor gay-straight alliances designed to foster acceptance of gay
students, but only 110 middle schools have them. Often the entire school finds out before
either the student or the faculty is prepared for the attention and the backlash. "My name
became a punch line very fast," says Grady Keefe, 19, of Branford, Conn., who came out in
the eighth grade. "The guidance counselors told me I should not have come out because I
was being hurt."
The staff at E. O. Green tried to help as Larry experimented with his identity, but he
liked to talk in a roar. One teacher asked him why he taunted the boys in the halls, and
Larry replied, "It's fun to watch them squirm." But Brandon McInerney was different. Larry
really liked Brandon. One student remembered that Larry would often walk up close to
Brandon and stare at him. Larry had studied Brandon so well, he once knew when he had a
scratch on his arm—Larry even claimed that he had given it to Brandon by mistake, when the
two were together. Larry told one of his close friends that he and Brandon had dated but
had broken up. He also said that he'd threatened to tell the entire school about them, if
Brandon wasn't nicer to him. Quest, Brandon's defense attorney, says there was no
relationship between Larry and Brandon, and one of Larry's teachers says that Larry was
probably lying to get attention.
Like Larry, Brandon had his share of troubles. His parents, Kendra and Bill McInerney, had
a difficult, tempestuous relationship. In 1993, Kendra alleged that Bill pointed a .45
handgun at her during a drunken evening and shot her in the arm, according to court
records. She and Bill split in 2000, when Brandon was 6. One September morning, a fight
broke out after Kendra accused her husband of stealing the ADHD medication prescribed to
one of her older sons from her first marriage. Bill "grabbed Kendra by the hair," and
"began choking her until she was almost unconscious," according to Kendra's version of the
events filed in court documents. He pleaded no contest to corporal injury to a spouse and
was sentenced to 10 days in jail. In a December 2001 court filing for a restraining order
against Kendra, he claimed that she had turned her home into a "drug house." "I was very
functional," Kendra later explained to a local newspaper, in a story about meth addiction.
By 2004, she had entered a rehab program, and Brandon went to live with his father. But he
spent years caught in the middle of a war.
While his life did seem to become more routine living with his dad, Brandon's troubles
resurfaced in the eighth grade. His father was working in a town more than 60 miles away,
and he was alone a lot. He began hanging out with a group of misfits on the beach.
Although he was smart, he didn't seem to have much interest in school. Except for
Hitler—Brandon knew all about the Nuremberg trials and all the names of Hitler's deputies.
(When other kids asked him how he knew so much, he replied casually, "Don't you watch the
History Channel?" Brandon's father says his son was interested in World War II, but not
inappropriately.) By the end of the first semester, as his overall GPA tumbled from a 3.3
to a 1.9, he was kicked out of his English honors class for not doing his work and causing
disruptions. He was transferred to Boldrin's English class, where he joined Larry.
Larry's grades were also dropping—he went from having a 1.71 GPA in November to a 1.0 in
February, his father says. But he was too busy reveling in the spotlight to care. "He was
like Britney Spears," says one teacher who knew Larry. "Everyone wanted to know what's the
next thing he's going to do." Girls would take photos of him on their camera phones and
discuss him with their friends. "My class was in a frenzy every day with Larry stories,"
says a humanities teacher who didn't have Larry as one of her students. He wore a
Playboy-bunny necklace, which one of his teachers told him to remove because it was
offensive to women. But those brown Target stilettos wobbled on.
The commotion over Larry's appearance finally forced the school office to take formal
action. On Jan. 29, every teacher received an e-mail with the subject line STUDENT RIGHTS.
It was written by Sue Parsons, the eighth-grade assistant principal. "We have a student on
campus who has chosen to express his sexuality by wearing make-up," the e-mail said
without mentioning Larry by name. "It is his right to do so. Some kids are finding it
amusing, others are bothered by it. As long as it does not cause classroom disruptions he
is within his rights. We are asking that you talk to your students about being civil and
non-judgmental. They don't have to like it but they need to give him his space. We are
also asking you to watch for possible problems. If you wish to talk further about it
please see me or Ms. Epstein."